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Issue ownership: Rethinking some of the fundamentals

- June 23, 2009


Two decades have now passed since John Petrocik introduced the concept of “issue ownership” into the lexicon of students of political campaigns. The basic idea of issue ownership is that voters associate certain issues with certain parties. In the U.S., for example, tax cuts would generally be considered a Republican issue, and environmental protection a Democratic one. The strategic implication is that parties should emphasize the issues that they “own” and should avoid playing on their opponents’ turf.

But how stable or enduring is a party’s ownership of an issue? That question is at the heart of Stefaan Walgrave, Jonas Lefevere, and Michiel Nuytemans’s experimental study (abstract here) of the ability of parties to use media appearances to create new issue turf for themselves and to protect the turf they have already staked out.

Rather than describing the entire study, I’m going to concentrate on the portion that I consider most interesting. This is the idea that parties can gain most by focusing on issues that no other party owns, can gain less by focusing on other parties’ issues, and can gain least by focusing on issues they already own; that last part may seem counterintuitive, but the idea is simply that when people already agree with you, there’s little to be gained by trying to persuade them.

Walgrave and his colleagues embedded an experimental component within a very large (n=more than 11,000) but nonrandom panel survey of Belgian voters. The experimental stimulus was a phony news item inserted into a real excerpt of the most popular television news program in Belgium. Almost 5,000 respondents were exposed to the fake story. These were respondents who volunteered to watch the news program; they weren’t randomly assigned to the treatment condition. In the excerpt, the news anchor introduced a party leader whose statement started with “The point of view of [the party] on [some issue] is that…” The five party leaders who were shown were real; they had agreed to participate in the study, and the positions they described for their party were real, too. In all, each party leader recorded separate 30-second statements on six different issues.

Respondents rated parties on 0-10 scales according to their competence to determine policy on the issue about which the party leader had spoken. When the leaders discussed an issue that no party owned, their party registered a significant credibility gain. When they addressed an issue owned by another party, they also profited, but not by as much. And when they talked about issues their party owned, they made no progress, though the results contained some evidence that they may have limited the losses that their party would otherwise have suffered. In sum, the results, though containing considerable noise (welcome to social science), were basically consistent with the idea that the researchers set out to test.

Along with recent non-experimental research, these results and others reported by Walgrave et al. on which I haven’t focused have some striking strategic implications. Most importantly, perhaps, “trespassing” on other parties’ issues not only does happen, but can be successful – especially for parties that receive a good deal of play in the media; for parties that have difficulty commanding attention, though, the superior strategy may be to stick to their own issues lest another party make off with them. It’s also known that much issue trespassing occurs toward the end of a campaign; early in a campaign, parties tend to concentrate on solidifying their base, but later on they try to reach out to supporters of other parties. But the authors are skeptical of the merits of this strategy; it’s fairly easy, they argue, to move up in the rankings on an issue, but it’s very difficult to dethrone the issue owner.

All in all, a pretty cool study – not a perfect research design by any means, especially in its heavy reliance on nonrandom assignment to the various experimental conditions, to the experimental component of the study, and to the study itself. But cleverly executed (wouldn’t the rest of us love to be able to use real-life party leaders in our experimental research?) and centered on issues that are important theoretically and have some important real-world implications.

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